Years of housing instability, friend’s death move Ottawa woman to expand backpack project for homeless

A young Ottawa woman who was once homeless is raising money and rallying volunteers to help her hand out backpacks filled with small necessities to vulnerable people on the city’s streets this winter and grow the project into a steady operation.

Emilie Kelly said the initiative is influenced by the many years during which she experienced housing instability, but the sudden death of her close friend, Daniel Spence, has brought new meaning to her endeavour.

Spence, who passed away in late September at age 29, worked closely with vulnerable people in Ottawa. He worked at a safe injection site and was also behind a budding T-shirt company from which he gave 67 per cent of the proceeds to a local non-profit that supports at-risk and homeless youth in the city.

“The day that I found out he passed away was the day that I made a promise to myself that I would make sure this continues,” Kelly said of her backpack project.

After she moved to Ottawa at age 19, struggling with mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction, Kelly said she “never knew” where she was going to sleep for an extended period of time. She survived by couch-surfing, finding short-term rentals and staying in shelters, she said.

Two winters in a row, the now-23-year old said she received backpacks stuffed with basics, like socks and a small blanket, from two local organizations that assist at-risk and homeless youth. Kelly said receiving those items “helped so much” at a time when she was feeling “hopeless.”

With support, Kelly said she has since managed to reach a more “stable place” in her life but she knows many aren’t as fortunate. The memory of the “intense” gratitude she felt for those bags inspired her to give back, she said.

She decided last year to launch her own backpack project but with the goal of reaching as many vulnerable people in Ottawa as possible, not just youth.

With the $185 she said she raised, she stuffed around 30 bags with items like Cup-a-Soups, toothbrushes and toothpaste, menstrual products and reusable water bottles. She then walked the streets of Ottawa over the winter and handed them to individuals in need.

Kelly had already decided she would give the project another go in 2018, but Spence’s death has compelled to her scale up the initiative significantly and start the process to register for charity or non-profit status.

Kelly launched a fundraising campaign on Facebook just over a month ago to finance the backpack project for the coming winter. As of Thursday morning, the campaign had raised $1,140 of its $2,000 goal.

When he first learned about Kelly’s outreach project, Spence’s father said he thought it was “beautiful.”

“It’s something that she understands from the point of view of the people who will be receiving,” Brad Spence said in an interview. “It’s something that Daniel tried to do in a different way and would have fully supported.”

Daniel Spence

Kelly has also put out a call for donations of items she can use to fill the backpacks. While she has about a dozen volunteers assisting her so far, she said she will need more help to pack and distribute the backpacks and pick up items people are willing to donate to the cause.

In hopes of recruiting more helping hands, Kelly is holding an information and volunteers’ meeting at the Glebe Community Centre on Thursday night.

Kelly’s campaign is among several similar initiatives that take off in Canadian cities as the winter months and holidays approach, many of which work directly with shelters to deliver those packages of necessities and small gifts.

But not every person experiencing homelessness is in the shelter system and vulnerable people experience hardship year-round, Kelly said. She wants her Pack A Bag Project to reach the hidden homeless population and ultimately evolve into a year-round campaign.

“Our city can never have ‘too much’ help and support,” she said.

Kelly said she moved away from a turbulent and dysfunctional family environment at 16 years old, which led to seven years of unstable housing. She only recently moved into the first apartment of her own in Ottawa.

She has been sober for just over two years and is enrolled to finish her high school diploma, she said. She also recently got a pet – an orange kitten named Nacho – that she said “keeps her going.”

Kelly said she feels more positively about her life’s direction and wants to channel that energy into raising awareness about housing instability, mental illness and addiction, and how they are linked.

Based on her experience, she said she would like to see governments increase their funding for housing and homelessness programs and support services.

“I shouldn’t see … someone on the street right now. But there’s someone out there laying on the ground,” she said.

“That’s not OK,” she said. “We live in Ottawa.”

This photo from 2017 shows the types of supplies and items Emilie Kelly hopes to purchase for backpacks for Ottawa’s homeless. She’s launched a fundraising campaign to finance the project and is also accepting donations.

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